Church matters: Christian communities in ME at historic low – Israel is at fault

Isn’t it interesting how Israel and the whole of the ME have been all put into one big lump, in the first paragraph? Beyond this malicious error, the rest of the information does not withstand scrutiny. Sadly, this is the package that will be served an unsuspecting Norwegian public…

Maybe this little tidbit from PA children’s TV can put these odd claims into context (lifted from Palwatch)?


Jeffery M. Abod

The recent Middle East Synod (see Jan./Feb. 2011 Washington Report, p. 42) has helped focus the churches’ attention on the vanishing Christian population in the Holy Land.

For two thousand years, Christian communities have thrived there. Yet, over the last 60 years, their population has gone from their historical level of around 18 percent to less than 2 percent today. Never have the Christian communities in the Middle East been as close to extinction as they are now. According to Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, “the future of the Church in the Holy Land is now in doubt unless fellow Christians around the world step up efforts to help them.”

So why are these communities, long rooted in the historic land of their faith, now choosing to leave? And what does that mean for Christianity in the land where Jesus was born and preached?

First, when we speak of the Holy Land today, we generally mean Palestine and Israel. Oddly enough, the Christians living there seem almost like strangers to most of us. Many Westerners are not even aware that there are Christians in the Holy Land. Certainly many are also not aware that when we talk about the Christians there, we mean the Palestinians. Whether they live in Israel, the West Bank or Gaza, these Christians are all Palestinians (with the exception of recent immigrant worker communities) and have been living there for 2,000 years. They live as a double minority: as Christians in a largely Muslim culture, and as Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation.

Second, contrary to current popular opinion in this country, Christians are not leaving Israel/Palestine because of their Muslim neighbors. After all, for 1,500 years the Christian population has been relatively stable despite living in a largely Muslim culture. Even today, many of elected Palestinian leaders are Christians who enjoy popularity and a wide base of support.

The number one reason given by Christians as to why they are leaving is because of the economic conditions created by the Israeli occupation. In fact, according to a statement put out by the heads of all the churches in Jerusalem, “Occupation remains the root cause of the conflict and of the continued suffering in the Holy Land.”

Since the State of Israel first occupied Palestinian lands (partially in 1948, taking the rest in 1967) Christian residents have been leaving. As cited at the Middle East Synod, “the lack of freedom of movement, the wall of separation and the military checkpoints, the political prisoners, the demolition of homes, the disturbance of socioeconomic life and the thousands of refugees” have created such harsh conditions that many who can afford to leave have emigrated. Christians, who are generally well-educated and have connections in the West, have departed in great numbers.

State of the Church Today

While the government of Israel continues to state that it welcomes and protects the rights of all religions, a tree is known by its fruit—and Israel’s actions say otherwise.

Most Christian-owned lands have been and continue to be confiscated for the building of illegal settlements for Jews only. The Home of Our Lady of Sorrows outside Jerusalem is only one of many examples. The Sisters there care for the elderly. Yet, Israel has constructed a giant wall on their property, effectively cutting off patients from their families and limiting access to the hospital access.

Israel also has denied visas to more than 500 religious workers and clergy to live and work in the West Bank and Gaza. Denied entry into Palestine, they are prevented from ministering to their people. Some priests are even afraid to leave, for fear they will not be allowed to return.

The Israeli government continues its efforts to remove the tax-exempt status of the Christian churches. A notable example is Augusta Victoria Hospital, which largely serves the Palestinian poor (see October 2003 Washington Report, p. 52). The government has gone to court to try not only to remove their exempt status but also to back them retroactively to 1967, when Israel first occupied East Jerusalem. This, of course, would force the hospital to shut its doors.

Evangelization itself, always a primary mission of the Church, is a crime in Israel, and carries a mandatory prison term.

Even the Holy Sites are coming under increasing threat. Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity still bears the marks of Israeli Defense Forces gunfire from 2002. Access to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is increasingly denied to Palestinian worshippers who live outside Jerusalem’s walled Old City.

This past year access was even denied on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. The Upper Room is all but off limits to all Christians. When Pope John Paul II was allowed to pray there in 2000, it was a rare opportunity indeed.

Christians in the Holy Land can feel very isolated and cut off from the Church at large for two reasons. First, many of their fellow Christians in the West don’t even realize there are Palestinian Christians, as we tend to think of the “Israel-Palestine” conflict as only a Muslim-Jewish issue. Thus the views of Palestinian Christians often are ignored—or not sought in the first place.

Secondly, many Christians in the West seem to hold kind of a default Christian Zionist viewpoint, which actually works to the detriment of our brothers and sisters there. Christian Zionism is an oxymoron, the practice of which is rooted in violence and exclusivism—things that are the very antithesis of Jesus’ teachings.

While there is a lot of spin and politics in an issue such as this one, it is nonetheless a humanitarian concern which demands a response by the faithful. We can choose to heed the calls of both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict to build bonds of solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land. Our efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict benefit not only the Christians and Muslims in Palestine, but Israelis as well, and addresses their ongoing security issues. Their cause is the cause of us all. We need to stand for justice, as it is only from this that true peace can take root.

Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is widely seen as the key to stability in the wider Middle East. Peace there would also certainly help to stabilize our economy here at home. More importantly, it will one day help us answer that question that Jesus will pose to us: “When did we see you a stranger and not invite you in?”